7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ 3Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’
4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.2 Samuel 7:1-14
When I introduce political theology to my students, I tell them that it is the study of the time and location of God’s action. This conceptual definition specifies the area of study a bit more than a formal one—such as the interdisciplinary study of religion and politics—or a genealogical one—that would tie the development of the field to the work of some figure Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Gustavo Gutierrez, or others. While I think this definition has its advantages, it is limited in important ways and still leaves the field wildly under-determined.
Christian theological traditions have often fixated on the time of God’s action. Particularly in the North Atlantic, preachers, hucksters, and prophets have repeatedly announced competing claims about imminence of Jesus’s return. These claims have ambivalent theological and political consequences. Imagining America as the New World—in a realized eschatology of the new heaven and the new earth—enabled European settlers to unleash apocalyptic devastations upon the native and the enslaved (see the work of historian Gerald Horne). But, deferral of the eschaton has its own heinous consequences as petro-fundamentalists have extracted, processed, and burned oil to hasten the second coming. Jesus is coming, therefore let the world burn (see the work of historian Darren Dochuk). In a social gospel twist that may be more warmly received by readers of this essay, we are building the Kingdom of God to prepare for Christ’s return, so let’s get to work on changing the social order (see the work of Christian social ethics). Such ambivalent visions have provided powerful and terrible fuel for political projects. Anticipation or realization of Christ’s sovereign dominion on earth continues to influence public political imaginations.
This focus on the time of God’s agency, however important to the critical and constructive work of political theology, shouldn’t displace attention to the location, the place where God acts. As Willie James Jennings has shown, the diremption of place, the conversion of identity from its intimate connection with land to a status attached to race, is rooted in the Christian heresy of supersessionism. By spiritualizing place, and thereby transmogrifying place-based identities into racialized ones, Christianity cooperated with the machinations of settler-colonial capitalism in its world-making project. Thus, returning to a consideration of the land as one location of God’s action is basic work for any political theology that aspires to move in a decolonial direction.
The question of location of God’s action, or more specifically, the place where God dwells recurs across this week’s lectionary passages. In a pivotal passage in 2 Samuel 7 (according to Walter Brueggemann, the most important chapter in the Old Testament) David, the shepherd-warrior-king, announces his plans to build a dwelling place for God. It would be a crowning achievement for his consolidation of royal power. The reasoning makes some sense: just like David is residing in a house of cedar, so also God must be placed in a house of similar grandeur.
But God, according to the authors and editors of Samuel, had different plans. God rebuffs David by reminding him of his own humble beginnings in the pasture. God has moved with the people of Israel through the wilderness of exodus and has never once requested a house where God’s spirit may dwell. Whatever David’s intentions—to honor God with a house of appropriate resplendence or to crown his own reign with fitting spiritual power—the God of Israel refuses containment. David, tainted by the blood of his many military adventures, will not be the one to build a temple for the Ark. The God of Israel is an exodus God, a wilderness God, and, later, an exilic God.
This God is radically free, but—introducing a central and unresolvable tension in the Jewish and Christian theological traditions—God also binds God’s-self to the people of Israel. As Psalm 89 testifies with themes that echo across scripture, this covenantal binding to people, land, and place is not because of the faithfulness of the people, but because of the faithfulness of God. Even though the Psalter conjures a God of discipline who “will punish their transgressions with the rod and their iniquity with scourges” (verse 32), such judgment remains within a covenantal relationship. The Psalter’s God testifies: “I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips” (verse 34). This radically free God cannot be contained by a building, but God constrains God’s-self through the gift of a covenant to people and to land.
Ephesians 2:11–22 adds another valence to the question of the location of God’s action. Here the author wrestles with the meaning of the covenant with Israel for Gentiles, “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” The letter-writer contends that those “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Metaphors of place (far and near) collide with metaphors of peoplehood (strangers, aliens, and citizens). The passage concludes, “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually in a dwelling place for God.” Through Jesus a new humanity is born, made possible only through God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. The holy temple, though, as imagined by the author is not in Jerusalem, but a people that becomes a dwelling for God.
These passages raise a paradox, an unresolvable tension. On the one hand, the radically free and transcendent God will not be contained by human ingenuity and creativity. No building, no institution, no sacrament, no land, no place can capture the Spirit of God. Such a theological affirmation should lead us to question bishops who claim to control God’s presence in the sacrament and critique settlers who maintain that God’s promise justifies perpetual occupation of specific lands. Yet, on the other hand, this radically free God has in freedom chosen to bind God’s-self in a covenant with a particular people and through that people to particular places. God will not violate God’s covenant with Israel. And, in the Christian tradition we affirm that through Jesus Christ Gentiles too are grafted into this covenant to people and place. Christianity has too often spiritualized place, collaborating with late capitalist patterns of extractivism that imagines land as desacralized deposits of raw materials to be mined and exploited for material gain. Here we could learn from indigenous spiritual traditions that view people and place as intimately connected and reject the doctrine of discovery that has facilitated the genocidal settler-colonial project. While God will not be contained, these passages also resist any mere spiritualization: God has bound God’s-self to particular people and places.
Holding this paradox, then, we are still left with the question: where does God dwell? These suggestive texts don’t resolve the question for us. They set out a range of possible options: God may be found in the wilderness or in the temple, in the covenantal relationship or well beyond it. God will not be contained, even as God binds God’s-self to Israel and through Jesus Christ to Gentiles. God crafts God’s own place through gathering together and conjoining a people from all places. In the present age, this gathering of the crowd is an ongoing divine labor, as God builds together people who were once enemies (Ephesians 2:14). But, such grafting ought not to be presumed, even if it is in fact what Christians hope for. So, rather than presuming to already know where God dwells, we might tarry a little longer with a slightly different question: where, and with whom, is God dwelling?